Goodwin Liu's nomination is expected to be approved by a three-member… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from San Francisco and Los Angeles -- Gov. Jerry Brown has appointed UC Berkeley law professor Goodwin Liu to the California Supreme Court, picking a liberal legal scholar whose nomination for a seat on a federal appeals court was stubbornly blocked by conservative Republicans.
Liu, 40, whose nomination is expected to be approved by a three-member confirmation panel, will become the fourth Asian on the seven-member, moderately conservative court and probably its most liberal member. He will take the seat left vacant by Justice Carlos Moreno, the court's sole Latino and Democrat who retired Feb. 28.
Liu became a top candidate for the post after Republicans scuttled his nomination by President Obama to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The day after a U.S. Senate vote ensured that Liu would not get the federal judgeship, the governor's office called him about the state high court.
Rather than viewing the lost confirmation battle as a strike against Liu, Brown said he considered it an asset. His advisors said they considered Liu's opponents in the Senate to be conservative extremists.
"The dysfunctionality in Washington and the blockage at all costs by the more extreme Republicans — I don't think that should be given a lot of intellectual weight," said Brown, who sources said offered Liu the job Sunday.
The appointment of Liu stunned several legal analysts, including some of the state's top judges, because his name had rarely been mentioned among Brown's top candidates. But Brown, who had been preoccupied by the state's budget crisis, saw the vetting of Liu in Washington as an advantage.
"There's a great body of material on Goodwin Liu," Brown said, speaking to reporters in San Francisco. "That made it easier. Also, you have the American Bar Assn. that reviewed his qualifications. He's been well vetted. He's been attacked by the best and sharpest politicians in the country. That was an unusual predicate for examining his credentials."
Liu's writings suggest he is skeptical of the death penalty, although he has said he would have no difficulty enforcing it.
In 2006, during U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings, Liu wrote: "Whatever one may think of the death penalty, Alito's record should give pause to all Americans committed to basic fairness and due process of law" because his "opinions show a troubling tendency to tolerate serious errors in capital proceedings."
Liu later said he regretted some of his hard-edged remarks about Alito.
Liu is considered a supporter of gay rights, including same-sex marriage, and civil rights for other minority groups. He is expected to be on the court in time to hear arguments in the challenge against Proposition 8, the 2008 ballot measure that reinstated a ban on same-sex marriage.
The state high court will decide whether initiative proponents have the legal right to appeal court orders against the measures they sponsored.
Brown had been expected to replace Moreno with another Latino, and Liu's nomination angered some bar activists.
"It should have been a Latino and somebody who was native to Southern California," said Victor Acevedo, president of the Mexican-American Bar Assn. No current member of the court now lives in Southern California.
"We are almost the majority of the people of the state of California," Acevedo said, "and for the governor to say there isn't one Latino who is qualified to serve on the court is extremely troubling. That to me is like the governor turning a cold shoulder to the Latino community in Southern California."
Conservatives also criticized the nomination, saying Liu would be too protective of the rights of criminal defendants.
"It is very clear that he is on the murderers' side right down the line," said Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative law-and-order group.
But others were effusive in their praise of Liu, repeatedly remarking on his intellect and collegiality.
"He is very persuasive because unlike most people of his intellectual caliber, he is not a pretentious person," said Court of Appeal Justice J. Anthony Kline, who was involved in Brown's search for a candidate. "He has a lot of humility and is kind of self-deprecating. This is a deep thinker, a guy who is going to be an outstanding judge and going to be considered one day for the U.S. Supreme Court."
Brown said Liu, who was unavailable to comment, was delighted to be chosen.
"There's no doubt in my mind that he has the background, the intellect and the vision to really help our California Supreme Court be again one of the great courts in the country," Brown said.
During his campaign, Brown said he would not appoint another Rose Bird, the late chief justice whom voters ousted along with other liberal Brown appointees to the court during his earlier gubernatorial tenure. Bird, who had no judicial experience, was widely criticized for voting against every death sentence she reviewed.